Instead of packing Schoellkopf Field stands and watching evening fireworks, Cornell alumni and students are gathering virtually for StayHomecoming, headlined by the alumnus who has become a household name: Dr. Anthony Fauci M.D. ’66.
On Tuesday afternoon, NBC anchor Kate Snow ’91 interviewed Dr. Fauci in a talk that addressed topics ranging from the timeline of a potential vaccine to Cornell’s role in the pandemic and social distancing fatigue.
President Martha E. Pollack opened the event by briefly introducing the famous alumnus, touching on his contributions to the field of medicine.
“The public health crisis we have all been living with for the past half year has really brought to light the vital importance of expertise, it has shown us how much we all need and rely on scientific experts like Dr. Fauci,” Pollack said.
One of the first questions concerned the possibility of a COVID-19 vaccine and its potential to be politicized in the lead-up to the 2020 presidential election.
“I try to, the best of my ability, in being very consistent in my messaging based on facts and scientific data,” Fauci said, “but when there are mixed messages coming out of any institution, including the federal government, there is confusion as to what people should do.”
He mentioned that in the United States there are currently five vaccine candidates in phase three advanced trials involving tens of thousands of people. While he is currently unable to say which candidate is best, Fauci suggested that a vaccine would be ready by November or December of this year.
Fauci, despite being a member of the White House’s Coronavirus Task Force, has occasionally publicly disagreed with President Trump, who regularly downplays the severity of the coronavirus. After returning from a stay at Walter Reed Hospital, Trump controversially proclaimed in a video, “don’t let it dominate you, don’t be afraid.”
However, according to Fauci, “personally contradicting the President of the United States publicly is not a good thing if I want to get my job done.” Instead, he stressed the importance of wearing masks, avoiding crows, keeping a distance and washing your hands.
It was not just Snow asking Fauci questions throughout the event — three students, selected beforehand, were given the opportunity to ask questions.
Rachel Friedlander M.D. ’21 asked Fauci to give any advice to physician-scientists on effectively communicating important messages to the public.
“Realize and be humble to know you do not know everything and do not be afraid to say you do not know,” Fauci answered. “The goal in communicating is not to show everybody how smart you are, the goal in communicating is to have people understand what you’re talking about.”
Oummu Barrie ’22 followed up this question by asking if Fauci had ever doubted his own leadership abilities during his career and how he was able to combat that feeling.
Fauci said he had never doubted them.
He recalled his early years of conducting HIV/AIDS research, and how other experts then disagreed with him about his idea of meeting with AIDS activists and including them in their planning and discussions. Ultimately, he said “it enriched the science, so I never doubted my leadership.”
Fauci also offered words of wisdom when asked how he got from Cornell to where he is today.
“It’s taking advantage of opportunities that come your way that you have no power over at all,” Fauci said. “You gotta have a good background and good training, but then what you gotta do is realize that often the things that take you into directions that you never planned, you have no control over.”
In the end what really keeps Fauci hopeful is that, with a combination of interventions and public health measures, there will be an end to this pandemic.
For Fauci, the COVID-19 pandemic is what he used to describe as his biggest nightmare, he said. But he isn’t nervous now.
“I am very cognizant of people getting sick and people dying,” Fauci said. “That’s real stuff for me, that’s not a statistic. It just gives me more energy to say we got to get a vaccine, we got to get drugs and we got to get people to listen to us when we say what the public health measures are that we need to follow.”